Across the United States, more than 340 pregnant women infected with Zika virus are waiting to find out what fate holds for their unborn children. The odds are not encouraging. Researchers estimate that the chances that a fetus will develop a severe brain defect known as microcephaly are as high as 13 percent for those who contracted the pathogen during the first trimester.
Little is known about this forced sisterhood except that they all appear to have acquired Zika while abroad and that federal health officials, in conjunction with state and local authorities, are monitoring each woman closely.
On Wednesday, doctors treating one of those women in the New York area announced the heartbreaking news that her child — a girl and the first to be born to a Zika-infected mother on the U.S. mainland — has severe birth defects. Not only does the baby have microcephaly, they said, but she is also suffering from intestinal issues and “structural abnormalities of the eye.”
Abdulla Al-Khan, a specialist in maternal and fetal medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, described the mother as sad.
“She is trying her best to cope with this emotionally,” Al-Khan said at a news conference.
The unidentified 31-year-old woman’s story began in Honduras in December when she was pregnant and developed a rash. She immediately went to see her doctor.
“I told my gynecologist that I had an allergic episode,” she recounted in Spanish to Fox News from her hospital bed before the birth. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine. I don’t think you will be affected.' Then I had an ultrasound, and everything looked fine.”
But her grandmother, a microbiologist, remained concerned. She sent a blood sample to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that the woman was infected with the Zika virus, according to the local paper, the Record. The woman has said she believes she contracted the virus through a mosquito bite but isn’t sure.
She traveled to the United States, where she has relatives, to seek better care for herself and her child, and on Friday and Monday she met with the team from the Hackensack center. Manny Alvarez, one of her physicians and a health editor for Fox, said she told them that “something is wrong with my baby’s brain.” Further imaging appeared to confirm her suspicions that the baby was likely to have microcephaly and that she was underweight. They advised her to have the baby as soon as possible.
The delivery, via Caesarean section at 35 weeks, was without complications, and the baby came out crying, which was a good sign. The doctor described the baby as “relatively stable” but said the mother is distraught by the child’s prognosis.
She’s “hanging in there,” Al-Khan told Fox. “But, of course, what human being isn’t going to be devastated by this news?”
Al-Khan said that “you don't appreciate the magnitude of this problem until you see [an affected infant] and share the pain of what the mother is going through,” ABC News reported.
Another baby with microcephaly was born to a Zika-infected mother in Hawaii earlier this year, but little information is available about that case.
As of May 26, the CDC said is tracking 341 women in the United States and its territories who are pregnant and have been confirmed to have Zika infections regardless of whether they could recall any symptoms. Health officials have created surveillance systems that will look at numerous aspects of the pregnancies and the condition of their babies.
World health officials recommended on Monday that women who are seeking to become pregnant should wait at least eight weeks after their return from an area where the Zika virus is active. Several thousand cases of suspected microcephaly have been reported in Brazil and other parts of Latin America in recent months.
U.S. officials have warned that Zika-carrying mosquitoes are likely to arrive in the southern part of the country in as soon as a few weeks as warmer weather arrives. Many local jurisdictions have begun spraying and warning residents to wear repellent and dress in long sleeves to try to minimize bites.
This post has been updated.